PANAMA CITY — Hotel operators, prison guards and a former county clerk — none of whom owned cattle or farms — have been indicted in an elaborate scheme to defraud a federal government program aimed at helping Florida farmers who faced losses in 2017 because of drought, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida Larry Keefe announced Friday.
Keefe, who has vowed to target public corruption in the district that houses the state capital, said that the arrest of the 29 individuals “won’t be the last” of the work of his newly-formed Public Trust Unit. He is expected to announce charges on another probe next week.
Under the scheme, prosecutors said, Farm Service Agency director Duane E. Crawson, 43, of Bonifay, led a conspiracy to get his friends, family members and acquaintances to recruit others to submit false applications for the federal Livestock Forage Disaster Program. The program is intended to help cattle farmers whose grazing lands were significantly damaged by drought.
Prosecutors allege the accused received an estimated $373,000 in checks between May and December 2017 and then turned over as much as $103,000 in cash kickbacks to Crawson.
The defendants include Jeremiah Joe Rolling, 43, of Westville, an investigator in the Holmes County public defender’s office; Jordan Ryan Hicks, 36, of Ponce De Leon, a former Florida Department of Corrections officer; Kyle Martin Hudson, 39, of Westville, the former Holmes County Clerk of Court who last month was indicted on separate charges of wire fraud, and Dwayne Frazier White, 49, of Bonifay, a former city of Bonifay police officer, who has separately been charged with selling drugs out of his squad car.
Keefe said that he will announce additional indictments as soon as next week on another pending investigation. He said that in public corruption cases, “there’s often a network of people and interest and money that flows across county lines and, as we work on these matters, it’s fascinating to see the potential overlap and intersection that occurs.”
The 29 defendants had an initial appearance in Escambia County court on Thursday and were released on conditions. Prosecutors said they first learned of the illicit activity through an employee in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Keefe said it is an ongoing investigation.
“There are multiple sources, multiple leads,’’ Keefe said.
Charges include conspiracy to commit wire fraud, theft of government funds, aggravated identity theft, income tax evasion, and obstruction of Internal Revenue Service laws. The maximum penalty is 20 years.
“It’s important for the public to appreciate and understand that agriculture disaster programs are designed to help the hardworking men and women who work tirelessly to produce safe and high-quality agriculture products for this nation,’’ said Jason Coody, assistant U.S. attorney, who led the investigation.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter@MaryEllenKlas